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Exclusive: The John Carmack Interview

John Carmack on new Doom, making Mario games and his iPhone love

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Exclusive: The John Carmack Interview
Photo Courtesy: id Software
Updated November 09, 2009

When it comes to games, John Carmack is about as legendary as is gets. The longtime game creator, programmer and head of id Software essentially created the first-person shooter genre with Wolfenstein 3D. His later work included the Wolfenstein series, Quake games and, one of the most influential and controversial games ever made, Doom.

As of late id Software has been going hard on the iPhone/iPod Touch, releasing Wolfenstein 3D Classic, Doom Resurrection and other classic titles.

I talked with Mr. Carmack about his newest release, Doom Classic, his love of Super Mario Bros., and why he’s abandoning every mobile but the iPhone.

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Damon Brown: Apple leans towards a closed development system, keeping a tight reign on what developers can do with the system, while traditionally id Software has been super open, release the actual game source code out to the public. Is working with Apple a conflict for you?

John Carmack: Not really, but I see what you mean. We covet the iPhone for a bunch of different reasons. We’ve looked into Nintendo DS gaming, but we’ve also done development on Java-based phones for years. I’ve worked on other phone platforms and there is an amazing difference between, say, a Brew-based phone and an iPhone. [With traditional phones], most of the people involved are software guys or, worse, carriers, while Apple has decades of experience working with hardware and software. The SDK (software development kit, which helps game creation) is in a different league. Besides, the other phones aren’t much more open than Apple’s.

The issue is more Android versus iPhone. Android really has the support and the flexibility, but I’ve been talking with the Electronics Arts people (who publish some of id's products) about Android, and many folks are saying the money isn’t there. Also, with games, they don’t have a universal Open GL [graphics platform], standardized multitouch, and so on, so Doom Classic would need software rendering… different control schemes, different pricing for each version and, in the end, we’d probably make a lot less money. If Android takes off, it would be appealing to have a truly open platform, but we probably wouldn’t be able to utilize the different Android phones in the same way.

I have had a rollercoaster relationship with Apple for years, where we’ll be good, and then they won’t talk to me for six months because I said something “bad” in the press. But they have excellent engineers and good thinkers.

Damon Brown: What’s the biggest gaming limitation with the iPhone/iPod Touch?

John Carmack: Right now the most frustrating this is the shifting software problem: When you have two thumbs onscreen, about one-third of the processing is focused on reading their location – when there are other things that need to be monitored. It’s a stupid thing. [iPhone software version] 3.1 evidently had a small fix for this, but the real fix will be feedback taking less energy from the phone. It’s been surprisingly stable with Open GL (the foundation of the graphics). When I transfer Open GL to a new platform, it usually breaks! Now Open GL is being optimized, too, and will be even more robust.

Damon Brown: As you mentioned, there has been very little, if any, id Software development on the popular Nintendo DS and Sony PSP…

John Carmack: Actually, we got the SDKs and the hardware specs, but we never got around to producing.

Damon Brown: Why?

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